Monthly Archives: September 2016

Finding a Forgotten Book on Surviving the Holocaust

30 September 2016

From Literary Hub:

In the attic of a suburban house outside London in the 2000s, my brother made a remarkable discovery: a folder containing 200 fragile pages, typed in German, dated 1945, and apparently placed in a suitcase and never touched since. Its first page bore the name Moriz Scheyer and the title Ein Überlebender (A Survivor).

We were clearing out the old family home: our father, Konrad Singer, needed to downsize. The attic—in the way of attics of family homes lived in for 40-plus years—had accumulated detritus gradually throughout that period (garden furniture, books, toys, bedlinen, kitchenware), without apparently ever jettisoning any.

In the midst of all that was this incredibly valuable, irreplaceable document. The written account of a family legend: my grandparents’ wartime flight through France, involving incarceration, hairsbreadth escape from deportation, and a final heroic rescue by a French family and improbable concealment in a rural convent. A story which had always been recounted to us as extraordinary, even miraculous—but in fragments, the details unclear or forgotten, the original protagonists silent.

As I turned the first page, and was transported back to the beginning of that story—to Vienna in February 1938, immediately before the Anschluss—I was also meeting a family member for the first time. Moriz Scheyer, my father’s stepfather, a well-respected literary figure of 1930s Vienna, and a friend of Stefan Zweig, who died long before I was born.

. . . .

But there was another issue—one connected with the reason that the find had been so unexpected. And that was that I knew the book to have been destroyed. And the reason I knew that was that my father had told me so: he had himself destroyed it (or thought he had).

At the time of that revelation—when, some 25 years before the discovery, as a teenager, I had begun to be intensely curious about this lost side of the family and the family history—I was incredulous, even angry. How could my father have been so uninterested in preserving this historical document, his own stepfather’s account of this extraordinary story?

He gave (at different times) two reasons: the “self-pity” he discerned in his stepfather’s account, and its uncompromising “anti-German” sentiment. Either judgment, in the context of what Moriz and his companions went through, may seem to us unbelievably harsh and unsympathetic. But that reaction does, I think, draw attention to something important—about the role of a generational dynamic in relation to family memory, and the conflicts of memory. First, there is the specific postwar context. My father was a young man in 1945, desperate to look forward, to create a new world—socialist, rationalist, free of racial and nationalist thinking—above all not to dwell on the catastrophes and terrible irrationalities of the immediate past. Moriz Scheyer, over 50 at the time of his enforced emigration, unable to build a new life, shattered in health and spirit, could do little but “dwell,” could only bear witness to that trauma.

. . . .

Because this is the uniqueness of the book. It is a time capsule. Unlike so many survivors’ accounts, written or produced through interviews decades later, this is a book where you cannot doubt that what you read is what someone experienced and thought at the time. That perspective, that reaction to the events, has been preserved unaltered for 70 years. It suffers no risk of false memory or suggestion, of distortion.

Sometimes the perspective is surprising, arresting, bringing the reader face to face with a different world view. How remarkable, from our 21st century, to read Scheyer’s view—leading him, doubtless, to despair of the book’s publication—that “no one will ever be interested in what happened to Jews.” Antisemitism, from his 1940s perspective, was so ingrained in European culture that an account of something that “only” affected Jews could never attract serious attention.

How poignant, too, not least now, to encounter in Scheyer’s writing the concept of the “good European.” A well-known phrase of the time, now long forgotten, it was bound up with the pan-European ideal (associated with another forgotten figure, Romain Rolland) of a culturally bonded brotherhood of nations. It was, arguably, despair at the fate of this ideal that drove Moriz’s friend Stefan Zweig to suicide in 1942.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Here’s a link to Moriz Scheyer’s book.

I wrote

30 September 2016

I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.

Toni Morrison and thanks to Suzan for the tip.

Feminist bookstore from “Portlandia” cuts ties with show

30 September 2016

From CBS News:

The bookstore In Other Words, featured on “Portlandia,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports.

The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”

The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.

“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN.

. . . .

“Tourists and fans of the show come to our door to stand outside, take selfies and then leave. The vast majority of them don’t come inside,” the bookstore said.

In Other Words described the segments filmed in their bookstore as “trans-antagonistic” and “trans-misogynist.” It said the show’s segments have only gotten more offensive as time goes on.

Link to the rest at CBS News and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Google Is Using Romance Novels To Build Artificial Intelligence

30 September 2016

From The Guardian:

When the writer Rebecca Forster first heard how Google was using her work, it felt like she was trapped in a science fiction novel.

“Is this any different than someone using one of my books to start a fire? I have no idea,” she says. “I have no idea what their objective is. Certainly it is not to bring me readers.”

After a 25-year writing career, during which she has published 29 novels ranging from contemporary romance to police procedurals, the first instalment of her Josie Bates series, Hostile Witness, has found a new reader: Google’s artificial intelligence.

“My imagination just didn’t go as far as it being used for something like this,” Forster says. “Perhaps that’s my failure.”

Forster’s thriller is just one of 11,000 novels that researchers including Oriol Vinyals and Andrew M Dai at Google Brain have been using to improve the technology giant’s conversational style. After feeding these books into a neural network, the system was able to generate fluent, natural-sounding sentences. According to a Google spokesman – who didn’t want to be named – products such as the Google app will be “much more useful if they can capture the nuance of language better”.

. . . .

“We could have used many different sets of data for this kind of training, and we have used many different ones for different research projects,” he adds. “But in this case, it was particularly useful to have language that frequently repeated the same ideas, so the model could learn many ways to say the same thing – the language, phrasing and grammar in fiction books tends to be much more varied and rich than in most nonfiction books.”

The only problem is that they didn’t ask. The Google paper says that the novels used in this research were taken from “the Books Corpus”, citing a 2015 paper by Ryan Kiros and others which describes how the authors “collected a corpus of 11,038 books from the web”, describing them as “free books written by [as] yet unpublished authors”. It’s a collection that has been used by other researchers working in artificial intelligence and which is currently available for download in its entirety from the University of Toronto.

Forster says that she “always appreciates an interesting use of words”, but while Hostile Witness is available to download for free, no one asked her permission to use her novel as raw material to train a computer.

“Perhaps I’m still thinking in the old way, that a reader will read my book – it didn’t even occur to me that a machine could read my book. What I found curious was that these were referred to as ‘free books written by as yet unpublished authors’ because my state is very different,” she says.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

eBook Sales, Publisher Revenues Down in First Third of 2016

30 September 2016

From The Digital Reader:

Is anyone in the mood for poetic justice?

Then you’ll be pleased with the latest announcement from the AAP.

On Thursday the Association of American Publishers released its latest Statshot report on revenues of the US book publishing industry.

Trade book sales for the 1,200 odd publishers who submit their data to the AAP were up 3.4% for the month of April, but still down 4.5% for the year.

Paperback and audiobook revenues increased the most in April 2016 (21.5% and 20.4%), respectively) while sales of hardback books were up 2.6%. eBook revenues were down 22% for the month of April.

For the first four months of the year, ebook and hardback revenues were down (21.7% and 5.2%), while paperback revenues were up 9.9% and audiobook sales were up 31.4%.

In other words, the Big Five are having some success in shifting ebook buyers back to print, but they are still being stymied by Amazon’s decision to drive down the price of hardback books last summer.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

The Space Between Us

30 September 2016

Interesting premise for a scifi movie.



Eleven Sneaky Ways To Rescue A Failed Story

30 September 2016

From Writers’ Village:

So your story ‘doesn’t work’. You’ve worried it to death. You’ve cut stuff out. You’ve put it back in again. Now you’re wondering for the nth time if that comma in line three should really have been a semi-colon or a full stop.


Isn’t it time to junk the whole wretched tale and start again?

No. Your story might still be rescued, faults and all. Here are eleven sneaky ways. (‘Sneaky’ because they’re quick fixes and don’t pretend to be complete writing strategies.)

. . . .

3. Your plot has drifted out of sync.

If your character grew up in central Boston, s/he couldn’t have been educated at the same time in Vermont. But you only realize that after you’ve written 10,000 words.

Don’t do a total rewrite. Just go back and add some transitional lines:
‘The family’s move from Boston to Vermont happened like a dream. She remembered only fragments of it. One blink and there were trees. She’d never had a garden before.’
You can use the same ploy to tidy up all kinds of (small) anomalies. Have a character allude to them, agree they’re odd, confess they can’t remember all the details, then move on.

The reader will go along with that. Otherwise, they’ll cry “Hey ho, a plot hole!”

. . . .

6. You have too many named characters.

Your reader can focus their attention on only two or three named characters per chapter. Unlike you, they don’t have the benefit of a cast list to distinguish Jim from Joel and Anne from Alice. They’ll give up.

Two solutions:

A. Give all your named characters names that start with different letters. And…

B. Name only those characters who appear continually in the story or who must otherwise be memorable. Blur out the bit players. Identify them by labels.
So ‘Joe Dale, manager of the deli store’ becomes ‘the deli store manager’.
He can still play a colourful role but, being nameless, he won’t upstage your main players.

. . . .

10. Your dialogue is confusing.

It’s a great idea to draft a scene, initially, as a play script. Just dialogue. With its tit-for-tat exchanges, dialogue has conflict and vitality built in.

But a tit-for-tat exchange is still a playscript. It won’t work as a story. You need to add tags or other descriptors to show us who’s saying what to whom – plus constant reminders of the context.

Otherwise, it’s just voices in a vacuum.

If a single passage of dialogue goes on for more than three lines, it risks turning into a monologue. Break it up. Intersperse it with speaker labels, dialogue beats (inconsequential actions that indicate who’s speaking) or a speakers’ private thoughts, maybe set in italics.
‘She chewed gloomily on a breadstick.’ / The waiter refilled her glass.’ / ‘Not much of a menu, she thought.’
Now we know we’re in a restaurant. And who’s speaking/thinking. The monologue has also acquired life and texture.

Link to the rest at Writers’ Village

Everyone Suffers from Impostor Syndrome — Here’s How to Handle It

29 September 2016

From Harvard Business Review:

One of the greatest barriers to moving outside your comfort zone is the fear that you’re a poser, that you’re not worthy, that you couldn’t possibly be qualified to do whatever you’re aiming to do. It’s a fear that strikes many of us: impostor syndrome.

I know I’ve certainly had those thoughts while publishing pieces of writing, whether it’s blogs or books. I’ve had them while teaching my first university classes and giving speeches to corporate audiences. I appear confident on the outside but feel deeply insecure on the inside, wondering who I am to be stepping up to this stage. What could I possibly have to say that anyone would want to hear?

. . . .

What can you do to overcome these feelings of inadequacy that so many of us experience?

A first tip is something that Portman highlights in her Harvard address, which I’ve found quite helpful: Recognize the benefits of being a novice. You might not realize it, but there are great benefits to being new in your field. When you are not steeped in the conventional wisdom of a given profession, you can ask questions that haven’t been asked before or approach problems in ways others haven’t thought of.

. . . .

A second tip for combatting impostor syndrome is to focus more on what you’re learning than on how you’re performing. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, the feelings that impostor syndrome leaves you with are ones we might actually be able to control. With a performance mindset, which people suffering from impostor syndrome often have, you tend to see your feelings of inadequacy or the mistakes you make as evidence of your underlying limitations. This mindset only fuels the concerns you have about being unfit for your job. But there’s something you can work to cultivate instead: a learning mindset. From this perspective, your limitations are experienced quite differently. Your mistakes are seen as an inevitable part of the learning process rather than as more evidence of your underlying failings.

Link to the rest at Harvard Business Review

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